A New Perspective into Mediation. Member Spotlight: Mary Margaret Mackinnon

Mary Margaret’s legal educational background spans from Canada to the UK. In between, she has pursued a number of professional trainings focused on both the public and private sectors of mediation practice. She stated, “I have acted as a mediator for 14 years but my practice has evolved so that I do more public law mediation. This includes group mediations for certain institutions as well.”  Over the years, she has continued to develop a unique interest in the field of mediation. She stated, “I work in British Columbia but I also work in Northern Canada for the past 30 years. This work is much more challenging because this is a huge geographic area with very little access to justice including with the first nations community facing difficulties that do not necessarily resonate in our legal system. I became involved in mediation with those communities. I would call it ‘mediation like work’ building off community advocacy. That has made me more interested in working in that field.”

Mediation Perspectives

At first, Mary Margaret saw mediation more as a compromise process. However, through her mediation training, she realized that “it is not about compromise but opening the windows and trying to think creatively of opportunities that might let you problem solve without people’s values being compromised – trying to find a middle way.” For instance, last year, she chaired a file review committee on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and they reviewed historic files. She had many parties involved, which created a very challenging dynamic. This for her was an opportunity to listen and find creative solutions to move forward with a community that had a lot of divisions. Mary Margaret stated, “I see mediation as a good tool that does not need to come up with solutions but can reflect a whole series of alternate viewpoints in trying to help people listen to each other more effectively.”

A creative solution for Mary Margaret has a lot to do with listening. If one listens to the people who you do not necessarily share the same interests or history or even the same idea of what was a reasonable compromise, one can gain learn from this experience. In fact, one can gain valuable insight into how values permit for coexistence. For instance, in the file review committee, she was part of last year, one could hear a party’s perspective including what brought them forward (e.g. anger, grief, frustration). She stresses that in this process, one can make sure that these perspectives are reflected in whatever document is produced at the end. For her, it should be a document that reflects people’s perspectives and values. She stated, “a public document about how to move forward should reflect all people’s viewpoints.”

She further stated, “lawyers tend to focus on efficiency and with mediation, one needs more time to look at an issue, allowing for deviations.” Her work with first nations has taught her that there is a need to sit and listen to what someone needs to say. She firmly stated, “this takes time and patience.” Mary Margaret has also worked extensively in the field of sexual abuse. For instance, in Canada, children in remote communities were put through bad conditions as they assimilated into a new context.  Allegations of sexual abuse were found to be present under these conditions. Mary Margaret worked on some of these cases and she stated, “Working with the youth in those communities that acknowledge the historical reality but also build on their cultural heritage is consensus building around fractured communities.”  She recalls fostering personal connections in the community where over the years; these connections have become very valuable in terms of bonding and cultivating trust.

Finding MBBI

Mary Margaret is quite evaluative from her legal expertise, but within the context of mediation, she says, “I bite my tongue.” For Mary Margaret, mediation is a skillset that provides all parties to re-process their thoughts. She observed that facilitation skills take time to polish. However, she stated, “Problems happen all the time, therefore, trying to balance all the dynamics is key.” Furthermore, Mary Margaret’s participation in the Harvard Mediation program helped her observe these dynamics much closely especially when it came to co-mediation opportunities. She highlighted that it is a common belief for people to enter co-mediation settings, and feel like it is just like a typical mediation case with another alternative viewpoint. Thus, Mary Margaret believes structuring the process, knowing the objective style, and also thinking ahead in terms of the possible roadblocks is valuable to the planning phase

For Mary Margaret, Mediators Beyond Borders International is a door to finding one’s voice. She stated, “the idea of being mature, listening attentively, trying to find people’s voice, facilitate thought process is something you mature into. You see how arrogance does not work; you see how aggression does not work. By watching people who are skilled in mediation, you begin to also model It. In fact, the qualities that you see work are ones you emulate in your own practice and they tend to be more subtle refined skills.” For Mary Margaret, a combination of training as well as trial and error is part of this process. For Mary Margaret, one needs to find their voice, thus, MBBI creates a unique space to do so. Mary Margaret has had many mentors from different walks of life however when it comes to mediation, “it is more than an academic learning process. As a mediator, you tend to influence each other’s style a bit more.”

Mediators do not get a chance to see many mediation styles in action. Thus, that is where she thinks MBBI provides some options. For Mary Margaret, “MBBI provides a platform to watch different people see what they are doing, hear their voices and this is a real growth opportunity.” Mary Margaret learned about MBBI through the Harvard Mediation Program. There were members of MBBI in the course, from over 92 countries. This included an activist from Hong Kong, a Brazilian environmentalist mediator, and so forth. A couple of them were quite involved so became the door to joining MBBI. She is a current MBBI member and is part of a range of working groups.  Mary Margaret stated, “MBBI is a way to learn about how people are discussing climate change and mediation in different settings. In fact, what people are doing in different counties make you think about opportunities in your backyard.”

Current Projects

Mary Margaret is currently doing private mediation as well as public law mediation forums for many institutional clients. Once travel restrictions are lifted, she is interested in global projects and perhaps getting engaged with international MBBI projects. For the moment, she is interested in pursuing her current practice, which has evolved, into a zoom practice. She stated, “Zoom is less effective for mediation but effective for dialogue. For mediation, the in-person factor is key and it takes a lot of work to establish the rapport you build in person.” For Mary Margaret, effective mediation in fact starts in silos and gradually builds up.    

Future Insights

For younger mediators, Mary Margaret believes that “there are lots of opportunities through volunteering – you hone your skills by doing it, it is like riding a bike. Take your courses, learn the skills, and volunteer if you have a local family law tribunal or civil resolution tribunal space.” She goes on to further state that one can learn in gradual ways, which will also gradually establish a sense of confidence. On the other hand, for experts in the field, Mary Margaret believes that anything that has a community-solving component will always be dynamic. She also noted that volunteer work at a global scale is valuable. She stated, “people should try to engage in global opportunities especially for senior practitioners.”

Article by Elizabeth Gamarra, MBBI Writer